Sunday, December 25, 2016

"Greetings, you who are highly favored!"

At Easter, many Christians practice a long-time custom when we gather for worship. A leader will say, “Christ is risen” and the congregation will respond, “He is risen, indeed!”

It’s a peculiar custom because we do not say “Christ has risen” as if Jesus’ resurrection is confined to the past. No, if Christ has risen, he is risen now.

The expression carries theological significance. By expressing Christ’s resurrection in the present tense, we declare his resurrection life in us today. It’s a mystery why this should be but Christians believe that we experience past events in the present by a dynamic called faith.

In a similar way, linguists who have studied the Bible refer to two ways in which we may understand the development of Scripture. One way to interpret it is synchronically; the other way is diachronically.

The first way is to simply study the Bible in historical sequence. More accurately, a linguist studying Scripture synchronically may pick any text of Scripture and study it on its own terms, without reference to past or future linguistic developments. A synchronic interpretation of Psalm 23, for example, would involve observing the verbal structure, flow and tone of the text itself, without referencing, say…Jesus’ last supper or his parable about the good shepherd.

The other way to approach the text is diachronically. In this instance, to understand the full significance of Psalm 23, we would bring to bear texts of Moses as a shepherd, David’s life, Jesus’ teachings, and the nativity text in Luke 2 where the angels appear to shepherds. This approach puts different time periods in conversation. We see more recent events in light of what came before and we are even able to glean insight on texts that came before in light of what came after.

That is how the past and present converse. The past doesn’t stay in the past. What’s past is present.  That is why we say “Christ is risen” instead of “Christ has risen.”

I am writing this on Christmas day and I do so because I wonder how this principle might play out with regard to Christ’s birth. And it struck me: at Christmastime, we say “Merry Christmas” to one another but there is no verbal analogue to the Easter greeting we exchange.

To be sure, many churches employ the liturgy in which the leader and congregation proclaim “The Lord be with you/And also with you.” I suppose this could be a Christmas exchange since the central theological tenet of Christmas is that “God is with us.” But, culturally speaking, I do not think this little dialectic carries the same weight as the Easter greeting. We tend not to think of it as a Christmas greeting, per se; we tend to think of it as a “common time” greeting, in fact.

At any rate, I am pondering this morning how to personally reclaim the diachronic sense of the Christmas story; how to let it speak to me now and guide my life now, as if my present life is in conversation with Christ’s birth some two thousand years ago.

Pondering this, I was drawn to the idea of God’s favor which both begins and ends the account of Jesus’ birth. The conception of Christ and his birth converse with one another diachronically so each can converse with us today. Notice:

When the angel appears to Mary she is greeted with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”

When the angels appear to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born, they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The first thing I take from this for today is this: God’s favor rests on the most unlikely people. In fact, God’s favor rests on all of us…men and women, rich and poor, young and old, no matter our station in life.

Notice that the first greeting is for one person and the second greeting is given to a group of shepherds (and their sheep!).

And, most importantly, the second greeting is for the entire “earth”; it is for everyone and everything. In the space of nine months, the blessing of God which starts as a seed, grows to a harvest of global proportions.

This is akin to the story of Abram/Abraham, to which the story of Jesus stands in diachronic continuity. Recall that God gave a promise to Abram that he would bear a son and through that “seed” all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In fact, God said this to Abram/Abraham on three different occasions (in Genesis 22:18, 26:4 and 28:14) and this same Abrahamic promise was repeated in Acts 3:25 (in Peter’s speech to the crowd after healing a lame man).

What begins as a blessing for one person grows to bless all persons. All persons…everyone.

But we do not treat everyone as if they are someone on whom God’s favor rests, do we? We classify others as blessed or cursed, but the birth of Jesus is for everyone. Because of Jesus’ birth, the curse is lifted.

And this is the diachronic knife that cuts deep, I do believe. Somehow, we are not really living the birth of Jesus—and maybe that is because we are not even living the conception of Jesus.

For Jesus to be born for everyone, he must be conceived in me. A Christian is one who hears God’s greeting to him or her personally, saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” The greeting is not just for Mary. It is for each one of us and if it is not for you personally, it cannot be for everyone.

A Christian is one who allows God to grow inside himself or herself. Notice that when the angel appears to Mary and tells her what God wants, she willingly responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, NRSV)

And notice that the response of Mary stands in diachronic continuity with Isaiah, the prophet we know best for texts that foretell the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Many Christians are familiar with the text of Isaiah 6:8. Notice the parallel structure to Mary’s response. It reads:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

On this day when we celebrate the birth of Christ, it is an excellent time to consider whether you are responding with the same willingness as Mary and Isaiah: “Here am I, Lord! I am your servant. May your will be done.”

On this day, it is also an excellent time to consider how Christ is growing in you and how Christ’s growth in you sends you to be a blessing to all people. That is the message that flows between Abraham and Mary, between Isaiah and the shepherds, between Jesus and you.

To practice a Christmas faith like we practice our Easter faith, Christians should treat the remembrance of Jesus’ historic birth as occasion to start the story all over again—from within, by faith. Christmas day proves to be an excellent time to consider how Christ’s birth commences a season wherein Christ’s life grows inside us to share with all.

In this season I invite you to ask yourself: “How is Jesus growing in me? When his life breaks forth, how am I sharing his joy with everyone? When I see him growing in others whom I least suspect, how will I recognize it and will I join with God’s angels in celebrating it?”

I invite you to let the historic event of Christ’s birth truly speak to you today. To do that, I invite you to reflect on your own wondering questions…the questions of Christmas that simultaneously comfort us and challenge us.

May Christ grow in you and may Christ be born for others through you. Merry Christmas!

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